By Julie Landry Petersen
“Problem stated at its most succinct: Is life too short to be taking this shit, or is life too short to be minding it?” – Violet Weingarten, “Intimations of Mortality”
Like it often does, the humble little topic of changing the world seemed to rear its head throughout the April 23 coffee social at WORK Petaluma. Just because the table was full of what sound like practical types – software developers and writers and investment advisors and realtors – doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a healthy dose of imagination and optimism on display.
Take, for example, Dale Wannen, a new coWORKer and the aforementioned investment advisor. He shared a bit with us about his former work in “shareholder activism,” by which those who hold enough of a public company’s stock for long enough ($2000, a year) can stir the corporate pot by introducing a shareholder resolution. Ideally, that resolution would lead to shareholder votes to change company policy around the human rights of employees or customers, environmental sustainability, or other issues. More often, that change is circuitous, with the resolution rallying attention from the press and the public, putting indirect pressure on the company to change its ways. In Dale’s newest venture, he’ll be working with clients to direct more money toward sustainability – using that great American tactic of capitalism to effect change.
Meanwhile, several of us wondered what it would take to overcome the power of corporate interests in Washington, D.C. when it comes to genetically modified food. Could some large health care player go mano-a-mano against Monsanto, mused one coWORKer? Or does the profit motive of health care providers negate their ability to put their patients’ needs first? Is there any way to ensure the government itself is acting in its citizens’ best interests?
We didn’t come up with any simple answers. But we heard a lot of examples of working above and around the system (or, as WORK Petaluma “Mayor” Barry Stump puts it, “learning the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist”). One coWORKer is trying to figure out how to expand an online traffic school business that has to have a physical presence in every county in which it operate. Imagine if Khan Academy or University of Phoenix – or Amazon.com or YouTube for that matter – had to abide by a similar regulation and employ a tutor or a book salesperson or a video projectionist near the home of every one of its students or customers.
It’s enough to make you want to throw up your hands – or throw together something better. Inspired by a visit from a coWORKer’s eleven year old son, who’s a budding scientist and inventor, we talked about the incredible power of children to invent the future. For example, an eight-year-old Marin County girl named Vivienne Harr decided to launch a lemonade stand and donate all proceeds to end child slavery. The daughter of WORK Petaluma regular and social media expert Eric Harr, Vivienne’s turned her entrepreneurial idea into $650,000 raised for the cause in the last year alone. Sound good? Retailers like Mollie Stone’s thought so too – they’re carrying her “lemon-aid.” (Sound tasty? Drink up here.)
As Vivienne Harr herself puts it, “compassion is not compassion without action.” So here’s to a better world, one pragmatic optimist at a time.
Julie Landry Petersen is a freelance writer and independent communications consultant who has worked with education startups and nonprofits for over a decade. She lives in Petaluma with her husband and two children, and can be reached at email@example.com